The fourth chapter of the book of Jonah begins with a paradox. The revival in Nineveh should have brought immense joy for the prophet. However, Jonah is seen as an angry and resentful man who argues with God. The very strong expression, “O Lord, take my life, for it is better for me to die than to live”, indicates that Jonah’s anger welled up from the depths of his very being.
Why was Jonah bitter? Why wasn’t he able to rejoice in God’s great work in Nineveh? Let us hear from Jonah himself in verse 2: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God; slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Jonah not only explains why he was not happy with God, but also reveals why he was disobedient in the first place. Simply put, Jonah wanted the Ninevites to be punished. Instead, his message gave an opportunity for the Ninevites to repent and obtain pardon from the Lord. This is exactly what he didn’t want to happen. It explains his act of disobedience.
Before we judge Jonah, it has to be mentioned that he had good reasons for such a nasty attitude. The Ninevites were a violent people who often threatened the existence of Israel. They were bitter enemies of God’s chosen people. Israel suffered at their brutal hands several times. In fact, Jonah, like many of his countrymen, had been waiting to see God’s judgement upon the city.
The Ninevites were a violent people who often threatened the existence of Israel. Like many of his countrymen, Jonah had been waiting to see God’s judgement upon the city
Contrary to his desire, God showed mercy and grace to the Ninevites instead. Jonah could not accept this. How could God be gracious to the people of Nineveh? How could He forgive and spare them? Let us pause here for a moment. Have we not raised similar questions ourselves? How can God bless the person who hurt me so much? How can God prosper that family who mentally tortured us? Why hasn’t God taken revenge on those who persecuted the church? How could God let that person go unpunished?
Jonah knew God’s character very well. He knew God’s grace, compassion, love and forbearance. He himself had experienced God’s forgiveness and mercy in the past. I’m sure Jonah could not have forgotten his close encounter with death within the womb of the whale so quickly. Yet, he persisted with the question, “God, how could you forgive the Ninevites?”
Commenting on Jonah’s knowledge of God, Rich Carlson writes, “Jonah knew God’s character. The problem was that Jonah’s character did not match God’s character.” He assumed that the attributes of God — like grace and mercy — were only meant for him and his people, not for others.
Sometimes, we too are guilty like Jonah. We are not able to rejoice when God blesses our enemy. We cry to God to take revenge on those who hurt us. We secretly desire the destruction of those who persecute us. We are disappointed when God extends His grace and mercy to others.
Sadly, God’s dramatic attempt to teach Jonah some life lessons with the help of a vine seems a failure. The narrative ends abruptly with the picture of an unrepentant Jonah. I wonder what pleasant picture would have emerged if only Jonah had forgiven the Ninevites like his Lord.
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